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A King Among Men



My mom told us stories about him as if he were some mythical character from southern folklore. She held him up high for us to visualize him as a king among the rust colored dirt that filled the Alabama fields and backroads. When she spoke about him, her eyes turned a little watery, a little red and tired. Actually, it was more of a longing, a heartbreak because he was taken too early from her, from all of us. My grandpa, who we called Little Daddy, was born in 1903 and died in 1977. With his death, a piece of my mother’s heart died too. A corner of it seemed to stop beating fully. I understand that now. 


We heard stories about him running likker for extra money during the Great Depression when people needed a drink more than ever. Alabama was dry then. Hell, it was dry when I was a kid and sat around listening to relatives tell their stories while we waited for Bob Gibson’s Bar-B-Q to show up and feed us all on a humid spring evening. My Little Daddy always sat on the shoulders of everyone while they told those stories, and often they were told with tears filling the eyes of the talebearer. 


The stories I loved most were when my mom would talk about her daddy riding the rails, living free, and traveling from town to town to play semi-pro baseball. “He didn’t let any grass grow under his feet,” my mom would say. She would always say he felt trapped if he stayed in one place for too long. I understand that too. I sometimes picture myself riding the empty train cars with him, hopping off at a town along the way just because it looked pretty. I think about it often when I find myself driving down some backroad in my truck listening to old bluegrass music with the temptation to get my wife and dogs and just keep driving until we see some mountains. 


There were stories of him taking care of his siblings when there was no one else to do so, and other stories of him almost killing his own daddy. Again, I understood and related, the killing part that is. 


My mother said she would often hitch a ride on his cotton sack and get pulled through the red dust as it kicked up in the southern breeze, or she would try to match his stride as he walked the woods, keeping watch for copperheads and teaching her to appreciate nature because after all, we are all nature. They would gather the downed wood and take it back to their tiny cabin that he built on Burleson Mountain. A small wood stove was how they cooked their beans and fried their okra, and kept them warm when the dirt floor cooled down at night. “Your Little Daddy taught me to appreciate the hawk when it flies, and appreciate it more when it lands,” my mom would say. “If it lands near you, it’s bringing a message so pay attention.” I understood this all my life and I have always paid close attention to the hawk looking down on me. It’s one of the reasons I visit the woods so often. I keep looking for messages. 


There would be times, when I started to become a man, standing in either my mother’s living room or my grandmother’s kitchen, and they would tell me, “You have the same build as your Little Daddy. You stand and walk like him too.” They would both have tears in their eyes when they told me this, and I often wondered how it is that I can look, stand, and move like a man that I hardly knew. He died when I was seven. However, he mentored me through the stories I was told. He and his half-brother, Curtis, were the men I looked up to. They were the men I would try to emulate. They had a fearlessness that I understood. My body has often paid for that fearlessness, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. My mother said to me as she watched me come into the room at Hospice Care last August, just before she lost her ability to tell anymore stories, “For a moment when I looked up, I thought you were my daddy coming to get me.” 


My Little Daddy became of age on humid summer nights, raised by a grandmother who was Chickasaw Indian and dirt poor. They were poor because everything was taken from them, and when you have nothing, it is hard to ever gain much of anything. The Southern poor were different from the Yankee poor. They still were hurting from the historical events from the century before. However, from what I hear, my Little Daddy didn’t need much. He was fine sitting on the porch and watching the lighting bugs dance in the heavy night air, and he liked to rock away in a chair and strum a banjo that he taught himself to play. He was fine with the simple things and if you did not need much, you were never poor. I understand this. I have sat on my mom’s porch many evenings talking about how the simple things in life are what matter most. It doesn’t matter how big your house is or the kind of car you drive, it’s living with virtue that matters. It’s appreciating the love you have. “No matter how poor we were,” my mom used to say, “Every night we had cornbread and beans, and to us, that was good eating. Be grateful for what the Good lord gives you.” My mom made cornbread and beans all of her life, and I believe she would have no matter how much money she had. 


The only thing I struggled to understand with my Little Daddy was why did he ever allow my father to treat my mom the way he did? I asked my mom about it a few times but it brought sadness to her eyes when I did, so I stopped. I was cruel for asking, I guess. It’s probably why I don’t have a daughter now, or any kids for that matter. I’ve said many times throughout my adult life, if my daughter was hurt by a man like my mother was by my father, I would kill him without breaking a sweat and bury him in a deep, dark river somewhere where his body would never see the light of day, and I wouldn’t lose a night’s sleep over it. Some things just need to be taken care of, and a man that hurts a woman is a worthless son of a bitch. My mom understood this. 


My Little Daddy is still a king among men and the stories are locked in my memory, and they are written in cursive among volumes of journals that my mom left me. I read them from time to time, trying to hold the pages away from my falling tears so the ink doesn’t smudge. 


One of the stories that my mom wrote about was when my Little Daddy lost his own mother. He was just a boy. As they closed the pine box and nailed it shut, he kept telling the preacher, his grandmother, and anyone else that would listen, “She’s not dead. Don’t close her up in that box, she’s not dead.” His mother was buried in a cemetery without a gravestone because they could not afford one. Years later, when my mom was a little girl, her daddy bought a headstone to be placed on his mother’s grave. He took my mom with him to pick it out. She chose a headstone shaped like a heart and the inscription she wanted on it said, “Mother’s not dead, she’s only sleeping.” My Little Daddy approved with a crooked grin. I sometimes believe this too. When my mom comes to me in my dreams, or I feel a warm breeze on a cold day while hiking the trails, she is there. When I sit in my chair writing and look over and see her picture and then hear her voice as plain as day, as if she’s sitting right next to me still telling me stories while I play the keys on my computer as if it were an old piano, she is there. Maybe she’s not dead and only sleeping. 





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